INTO THE WILD- Movies and the Human Condition


  Into the Wild is an undomesticated movie of psychological brilliance and rare beauty. (If only books could open with such soul-stirring music and be so saturated with the vivid coolness of nature!) Alex, our perplexing hero (played by Emile Hirsch), carefully carves his thoughts into wood; his daily life is recorded in his journal. But it is the absences of words that deliver the movie’s main message. There are no words for the confusion that is lived when parents and children are blind to their actions and reactions. This movie (based on a true story) shows an ordinary life that becomes a Shakespearian tragedy. In the opening scene we peek in to see the family crucible all fired up. There they are: the suffering, blind parents. The mother wakes up, sure she is hearing her son’s voice. Where is he? He is somewhere far, far away doing his job. He is willing to die to make a point, but what is it? For an answer we must guess, because there are no words to integrate his family life with his mission. He leaves his family with the heaviness of silence.

But we, the observers, can interpret or notice how the family changes. Without the son, the father’s job has altered. Now the father can and does console the mother. The sister’s voice tells us that, “These are not the same people who raised us.” Could it be that the son has brought these two together through the pain of loss, as his youngest sister suggests? The voice of the innocent sister tells us how deep the hurt has become for her over time. The family has changed from a conflict-oriented group to an organism that slides into sadness.

But we do not have to linger over the relationship confusion and pain. We can forget for a moment the human cost of misguided relationships, because these momentary human tragedies pale in comparison to the raw beauty of nature. One without the other would not make for such a spectacular movie. The beauty of the movie is felt in part because of this tension between the confusion of the family relationships and our handsome, driven son/brother/lover’s love and celebration of nature.

It is worth the price of admission to see the way director Sean Penn approaches man and nature. He is a genius at highlighting the quiet struggle of an idealistic young man whose idealism becomes imperiled in a one-sided drive for freedom—but he never lets us forget the power of nature to celebrate life.

Alex, our hero, does not have enough knowledge to live with nature, just as he lacks the knowledge to live well with his family. Nature is there to love and to console us. But how do we live with nature? That is the question. Yes, Alex can train himself to be physically fit, but he has to be given boots to keep the soles of his feet dry as he marches into the wild. This moment highlights the innocence and ignorance of a man driven to an encounter in order to make some deeper point.

Alex tries to learn a bit about living in the wild. He finds an outdoors man who tells him how to cure meat. He takes notes. I wish he had practiced curing meat with his new-found friend. Perhaps then he could have passed the test that came during the bleak weeks in the magic bus that was his home in wilderness Alaska.

Alex kills the moose but can not cure the beast before the flies arrive. This is an intense symbol foreshadowing his ending.

Alex quotes Thoreau.[1] But instead of trying to improve society, he dismisses it and seeks freedom in nature. Perhaps society and his family are not worth the effort to save. Or perhaps dying makes the better point.

We can see that nature does correspond with family life. People get trapped in both places.

 The Family Lies
Perhaps Alex might have learned more from quoting Shakespeare. Could he have avoided Hamlet’s fate if only he had known of the twisted feeling states that are lived out in the family lie?

Probably it is way more complicated.

We have to guess that Alex is hurt by the lie his father lived with his mother. Alex learns the facts after his senior year in high school during a visit with distant family members out West. When he returns he says nothing to his parents, only to his sister, whom he swears to secrecy.

Here is another sad decision, at least for his sister.

The way the sister tells it, Alex discovered that their father had another marriage and another son. This meant that their mother was their father’s mistress. Shocking, yes. But did it have to be the end of the words between people?

This discovery becomes just one more reason to leave. It is only the topping on the psychic intensity of ongoing negative conflict between people who live an illusion and call it family.

Our man, whom we assume is hurt by the lack of truth, never tells his own truth to those he meets and loves along the way. They do not know his name or his story. In a real sense he avoids these people as his father and mother did him. He becomes a new man, Alexander Supertramp. Yes, he enjoys and brings carefree love to the people he meets. Many of these people seem likely to fill a hoped-for role for family feelings, but none of it takes. And none of these relationships changes his relentless drive to be alone with nature.

As Alex, Hirsch highlights the love of nature and the celebration of innocent freedom, and seamlessly weaves in the hurt and the lack of forgiveness that directly or indirectly lead to a talented man’s demise. Some might say there is some solace in his dying in the arms of nature. Some might say, “Who cares if his parents and sister continue to suffer?

I would have preferred that he spend the 25 cents to call his sister and relive her suffering with his voice.

Yes, I know—finding forgiveness is not cheap for any of us. But always there is my simple wish for understanding. If only he could have crossed the river and separated himself from his anger at his parents. But instead he dies with the anger unresolved.

Throughout the movie the sister’s voice reminds us of her own and her parents’ suffering. We are never far from the relentless nature of the beauty of tragedy.

What would have happened if Alex had quoted Hamlet? If Hamlet were watching, he might also celebrate our man’s run into idealism and the search for truth. Would Hamlet say, “Far better to enjoy the search than to stay stuck in the anger and disappointment of the horrid relationships in the family crucible”?

Perhaps Hamlet would admit that it is all the same: Each of us lives out some degree of the family anger, innocent or not.[2]

Sean Penn has an amazing ability to tell a story that is deep and lovely. He touches on many important themes in today’s confused world. Hirsch’s incredible performance as Alex allows us to feels the physical and psychological toll of one man’s journey. And for each of us, by being a part of this story, we build our family knowledge to some degree.

 [1] Thoreau was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years he followed Transcendentalism, a loose and eclectic idealist philosophy advocated by Emerson, Fuller and Alcott. They held that an ideal spiritual state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and empirical, and that one achieves that insight via personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. In their view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the “radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts,” as Emerson wrote in Nature (1836).

Thoreau’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance influenced the political thoughts and actions of such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Some anarchists claim Thoreau as an inspiration, though civil disobedience calls for improving rather than abolishing government.

David Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, to John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar. His paternal grandfather was of French origin and born in Jersey. His maternal grandfather, Asa Dunbar, was known for leading Harvard’s 1766 student Bread and Butter Rebellion, the first recorded student protest in the United States.

[2] From Chapter 2: The Mindful Compass
One of the world’s greatest storytellers, William Shakespeare, captured the essence of relationship dilemmas when he had Hamlet say, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare also noted the ongoing confusion that humans experience when thinking about their values: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

A great observer of the human condition, Shakespeare knew that there are all sorts of forces that leaders must contend with. One relates to how we manage our selves with others, and another involves how we understand the consequences of our thinking.

Written in 1601 or 1602, Hamlet takes us into the tragedy of Hamlet losing his self. The play makes the point that it is difficult to remain a separate self and think clearly in the face of pressure from those we love or even the ghost of someone we love. Many say that it is a brilliant depiction of a hero’s struggle with two opposing forces: moral integrity (sought after by anyone working to become a stronger, more separate self) and the need to avenge a murder (experienced when the self is lost as a consequence of absorbing the feelings, needs and wants of the other as though they were one’s own). Through this play, Shakespeare symbolically chides us to evaluate our weaknesses, our blindness, and the possible choices before us. A psychologically profound writer, he shows us how valuable stories can be in teaching us about our vulnerabilities.

 Andrea Maloney Schara
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Bowen Theory: A One Page Summery


Beginning in the 1950’s, Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed a new theory of human functioning. 

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit.  

Bowen believed that the emotional systems that govern human relationships had evolved over millions of years. He postulated that differentiation (level of emotional maturity) among family members produced variation as individuals became more of less mature from one generation to the next.

In cases where multi-generational transmission, differentiation among family members becomes progressively lower, this can also generate clinical symptoms.

The goal of “Extended Family Systems Therapy” is to increase individual family members level of differentiation by those who are capable of being in better emotional contact with those in the nuclear and extended family. This requires knowledge of the emotional system and how to mange self in relationships.

The cornerstone of Bowen theory is the 8 interlocking concepts that influence the counterbalance between togetherness and individuality. No one concept can be explained by another concept.  No one concept can be eliminated or isolated from Bowen theory.  Symptoms and maturity are the outcome of the interactions of these 8 variables.

Emotional, biological and environmental influences are considered as the individual adapts within the family unit over the generations.

The 8 basic concepts of Bowen’s family systems theory are:

1.      Levels of differentiation of self Families and social groups affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “group think”. Also, groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control the functioning of others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation of self.

2.      The nuclear family This concept describes 4 relationship patterns that manage anxiety:(marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse,  impairment of one or more children, emotional distance) that govern where problems develop in a family. 

3.      Family projection process This concept describes the way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. Some parents have great trouble seperating from the child. They imagine hows the child is rather than having a realistic appraisl of the child.  Relationship problems that most negatively affect a child’s life are a heightened need for attention and approval, difficulty dealing with expectations, the tendency to blame oneself or others, feeling responsible for other’s happiness, and acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment, rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully. 

4.      Multigenerational transmission process This concept describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The way people relate to one another creates differences which are transmitted across generations. People are sensitive and react to the absence or presence of relationships, to information about this moment, the future and or the past, and this, along with our basic genetic inheritance, interacts to shape an individual’s “self.” 

5.      Sibling position Bowen theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman’s work relating to sibling position. People who grow up in the same sibling position have important common characteristics. For example, oldest children tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children often prefer to be followers, unless they were disappointed by the parents.  Toman’s research showed that spouses’ sibling positions when mismatched often affect the chance of divorcing. 

6.      Triangles A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the “molecule” of a larger emotional systems as it is the smallest stable relationship system. A triangle can manage more tension than a 2-person relationship as tension shifts among the three. Triangles can exert social control by putting one on the outside or bring in an outsider when tension escelates between two. Spreading tension can also be stabilized by increasing the number of traingles. Marital therapy uses the triangel to provide a neutral third party capable of relating well to both sides of a conflict. 

 7.      Emotional cut off People sometimes manage their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. This resolves nothing and risks making  new relationships too important.

8.      Societal emotional process This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, similar to that within a family, which promotes both progressive and regressive periods in a society. 

Who was Murray Bowen, M.D.?Following medical training, Murray Bowen served five years of active duty with the Army during World War II, 1941-1946. He served in the United States and Europe, rising from the rank of Lieutenant to Major. He had been accepted for a fellowship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic to begin after military service, but Bowen’s wartime experiences resulted in a change of interest from surgery to psychiatry. During his study of psychiatry at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas from 1946-1954, Bowen read extensively in biology and the study of evolution.  His changing view of human functioning led to development of a research project at the National Institute of Mental Health in which 18 families with a schizophrenic member were studied over a five-year period. Later he went to Georgetown University where he developed Bowen Family Systems Theory.

This summery was written by Laura Martin with a few ideas by Andrea Schara